Meta-Practice

An Eye-popping Application Fee

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a $50 application fee for an open call for a group exhibition until now.

I’ve encountered $45 to 65 application fees for residencies, and $35 fees for open calls for three slides and $5-10 extra for additional slides, which could add up to more than $50 if the artist chooses. In any case, paying $45 for any fee seems expensive to me.

In principle, I think it’s an organization’s job to review slides of artists who are being considered for their programs. Reviewing entries is part of the cost of running the program. For galleries, looking for artists and viewing their artworks is part of the work of curation.

I get that the amount of entries can be overwhelming, that a lot of labor goes in, that jurors should be compensated, and that organizations want to offset those costs. (I’ve been a juror and I have worked at a gallery organizing submissions.) I also get that NYC is an expensive city to live in, and that open calls are a way small organizations generate income.

But, I also know that jurors may spend only a few minutes reviewing each entry. It’s up to individual artists to decide if having their work reviewed by unnamed jurors for the chance to exhibit in a group show is worth it.

Criteria I consider:

  • Who is the gallery? Where is it located? What is its programming like? What is their track record or reputation? What is their level of professionalism?
    • Will they handle my work with care? Will they properly care for, install, invigilate, deinstall, and pack my work?
    • Is the website well-designed, well-organized, and up-to-date, with a useful archive of past shows? Do captions properly credit artists and link to their websites? Or is there only a Facebook album of snapshots from the opening, where the primary message is “Look how many guests attended” rather than “Here are the artworks that form the content of the exhibition”?
    • Are past shows well-conceived, consistently high in quality, well-staged, and well-lit? Is the gallery in good, well-maintained condition?
    • Does the gallery double as an events space, increasing the chance that the work will be damaged?
  • What is the potential benefit of participating? What is the gallery’s location? Who is its audience? What are their hours? In other words, who will see the show and will they be interested and likely to support my work? What else is included in the exhibition? Will the make a catalog, host an artist’s talk, etc.? What is the value of that amplification?
    • Who are the jurors? What is their track record? Are they ethical? How aligned are their interests with my work? What is their institutional affiliation (sorry to have the institution validate the individual; it’s one consideration), and how aligned is that institution with my exhibition goals?
  • What is the potential cost of participating? What is the fine print? Do I have to frame unframed artwork? Do I have to pay for outbound and return shipping? Will I have to travel to install the work, attend the opening, and pick up the work? Will they assume any liability for damaged artwork? What is the split in any sales?
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Art Worlds

To Making Good Vibes

A double-whammy of expanding communities of artists. 

Some of my best moments in life are when I’m surrounded by smart, generous, enthusiastic artists. I’m thankful that I was able to be in that situation twice in the past two days. I am grateful for everything that went into making those moments happen.

Yesterday, I attended the orientation for Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Process Space, a five-month studio residency on Governor’s Island. I was excited about the opportunity but also anxious about meeting 19 strangers! There’s a lot that could go wrong.*

But it went really well—everyone was friendly and excited as we took the ferry across the sunny NY Harbor. When we sat down to get to know each other, it became clear that the participants have an interesting range of advanced inquiries. I was glad to see other POCs and a majority of female participants.

And I was happy that following the official orientation, J organized a happy hour. How I appreciate these social spaces has matured over the years. It’s not only for fun, but to learn more about individuals’ opinions, pasts, and senses of humor; it deepens connection, trust, and empathy. The sooner these spaces happen within any kind of artists’ programs, the better. I’m really excited to continue getting to know my cohorts, working alongside them in Process Space, and building a community of likeminded artists.

Today, I met up with 16 artists from the Artists in the Marketplace program for our informal, for-us, by-us walk-through of the Bronx Calling exhibition at the Bronx Museum. I initiated it because there’s so many strong, smart, and mutually-invested artists in my 2014 cohort, I knew it would be worthwhile to meet members of this year’s group.

I love it when artists talk about their practices and interests in an intelligent, unpretentious, and honest way. It’s great to be able to take in their words and ask them questions in the same space as their original artwork. I’m thankful to the smart, diverse, articulate artists who shared their enthusiasm and attention today.

Making these spaces happen takes initiative, labor, and, risk—you can’t guarantee that people will attend or enjoy themselves. But I would encourage artists: Do it! Why miss an opportunity? Make time and space to have fruitful conversations with other artists about art! If you’re worried about the time commitment, remember that events pass—and so does the labor of organizing them.

The payoff is worth it. Though the happy hour and walk-through were initiated by individuals, they manifested like potlucks—everyone coming to the table with something, like good will, openness, and receptiveness.**

*Recommended satire about social anxiety, see: “Everything I Am Afraid Might Happen If I Ask New Acquaintances to Get Coffee” by Hallie Cantor.

**Of course, these spaces are the cherries on the cake that is the support of LMCC and the Bronx Museum, for whom I’m tremendously grateful.

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Thought Experiments in Agency

Eleanor Heartney on Precarity and Creativity

[Full disclosure: This is from the catalog for a show I’m in (along with 71 other artists).]

“…the arts and humanities help ensure that you are more than just vir economicus (man of economics). In fact, the study of humanities, like the decision to pursue an art career, may work against a neat fit into corporate culture. People with a broader knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, and art may not be so willing to accept the current state of things as inevitable. …given how poorly the status quo is serving the vast majority of people to today, maybe critical thinking is exactly what is needed now.

Can artists transcend their role as cogs in the capitalist system? …the challenge is to find a way to live between the demands of two very different marketplaces [the art market and the marketplace of ideas]…

…each era evolves its own reaction to an oppressive structure…

If artists are to be more than small manufacturers for the luxury trade, we have to acknowledge a need for new thinking, new institutions, new methods of distribution, and new publications interested in the discussion of ideas as opposed to the dissemination of market news. The current situation is not inevitable or even rational…. artists must use their creative imaginations… to rethink how they interact with each other and with the larger world. They may need to assume multiple roles, reach out to different kinds of audiences, and reimagine what it means to be an artist… Out of adversity comes possibility.”

—Eleanor Heartney, “The State of the Arts: Precarity and Creativity,” from the catalog, Bronx Calling: The Third AIM Biennial, Bronx Museum, 2015.
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Art & Development, Meta-Practice

Points of Reference: Finding the right partners means not working with the wrong ones

1.
Being an artist and applying to competitions means dealing with rejection.

Rejected, a compilation of rejection letters, by Tattfoo Tan. // Source: Tattfoo.com.

Rejected, a compilation of rejection letters, by Tattfoo Tan. // Source: Tattfoo.com.

See also: Tattfoo Tan’s iheartrejectionletters.com.

2.
But dealing often with rejection doesn’t mean accepting everything that comes your way. Artists aren’t powerless. We have agency. When an “opportunity” presents itself, an appropriate reaction is to evaluate benefits and costs.

From “Standard Questions for Artists” from Standard Deviation by Helena Keefe (via ArtPractical.com):

Given an opportunity…
Do I believe in what this institution does/stands for? Is it the ideal venue for this project/my work? Does my work feel alive in this context?…
Does this opportunity help me meet or get to know people I may want to work with in the future? Will it enable conversation with people I want to be in conversation with? Is this opportunity helping me reach the audience I want to reach?…
Is there enough freedom in this opportunity? Would saying no to this opportunity be saying yes to something else I care more about? Is this the best artworld for my work? Is it the most effective use of my time/money/energy?

[I’d even ponder, “Is this what I want to do with my life?”]

…Am I being instrumentalized? Am I okay with that?
Am I happier making my living separate from making my art?

3.
Artists, too, can be selective, and reject things that aren’t good fits for us. Indeed, taking a pass on an opportunity can be a generative, productive action.

From Non-Participation: Call for Submissions by Lauren van Haaften-Schick:

The project, Non-Participation, will be a collection of letters by artists, curators, and other cultural producers, written to decline their participation in events, or with organizations and institutions which they either find suspect or whose actions run counter to their stated missions. These statements are in effect protests against common hypocrisies among cultural organizations, and pose a positive alternative to an equally ubiquitous pressure to perform. At the heart of the project is the notion that what we say “no” to is perhaps more important than what we agree to.

Historic instances and examples include: Adrian Piper’s letter announcing her withdrawal from the show Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975 at LA MoCA, stating her opposition to Phillip Morris’ funding of the museum and requesting that her criticizing statement be publicly shown; A letter from Jo Baer to a Whitney Museum curator canceling an upcoming exhibition on the grounds that her work was not being taken seriously because she is a woman artist; Marcel Broodthaers open letter to Joseph Beuys questioning the relationship between artists and exhibiting institutions; and, just recently, critic Dave Hickey‘s public announcement of his “quitting” the art world.

This tactic is oppositional to always saying yes; to the (non-)strategy of waiting for more powerful or influential dealers/curators/critics to “save” artists from obscurity and precarity; and to making art only for external validation. You will risk upsetting people and possibly being seen as “difficult.” But to do otherwise is to run the risk of adopting values—self-interest, opportunism, careerism—not your own, which are harmful to your practice and your fellow artists.

See also: Art Practical’s current issue, Value/Labor.

Addendum, added 4/10/2014:

Sarrita Hunn, “How to…Make an (Alternative) Institution” // Source: makethings-happen.christinewongyap.com.

Sarrita Hunn, “How to…Make an (Alternative) Institution” // Source: makethings-happen.christinewongyap.com.

See also: Sarrita Hunn’s “How to… Make an (Alternative) Institution,” a freely downloadable PDF ‘activity sheet’/visual essay for Make Things (Happen). In the third of three steps, Hunn describes “Noncooperation/Radical Non-Participation.” Also online at Temporary Art Review.

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Citizenship, Meta-Practice

Art World Misogyny

Sexism in the art world: the art world needs to radically re-think its ethics.

Today’s profile of Simon Evans and Sarah Lannan (WSJ) was framed as an ongoing quandary between husband-and-wife collaborators: How will Evans and Lannan share credit for artwork branded as Evans’, which Lannan has increasingly co-authored over the past eight years?

The title, “An Art-World Love Story: As Simon Evans’s star rises in the art world, his wife wants more credit” is frankly pre-Women’s Lib. Besides the fact that Evans is identified by name, and Lannan only as “his wife,” the angle is sexist—it implies that a gold-digging Lannan wants credit because Evans’ capital is increasing, not due to her contributions:

While Ms. Lannan, 29, was deeply involved in the creations, the works continued to carry his name…. Ms. Lannan had been growing increasingly uncomfortable with their practice of showing work that they had jointly produced under Mr. Evans’s name. They went to a couple’s therapist in 2012 to talk about it, but found they spent much of the sessions educating the counselor on how the art world worked….

The commercial art world is no model for ethical behavior. To me, explaining the art world’s misogyny to a therapist sets up conditional ethics. What ought to be done—giving credit where credit is due, and honoring one’s life partner—is obvious. Yet the couple seems to waffle in deference to money and power:

…given Mr. Evans’s reputation, Ms. Lannan was wary of upsetting the status quo. “We thought it was up to ‘The Man,’ or whoever was in control of the art world,” she said. “There is no way I was going to destroy this thing that Simon has. And neither one of us wants to lose our jobs.”

This illustrates the pervasiveness of artists’ precarity: with so many artists desperate for modest recognition, those who’ve garnered success can become fearfully beholden, lacking personal agency. From my reading, Evans holds the cards—and he is reluctant to sacrifice his male privilege to risk marginalization by association.

To cynics (or so-called realists) who call this strategy is a fair response to an unjust market, I’d offer this: The market is not fixed. It’s not truth, and we shouldn’t let its distortions form the organizing principles in our lives, relationships, and creative collaborations.

The commercial art world of collectors and dealers reflects the values of a privileged and prejudiced few. By doing nothing, and allowing Lannan to carry the burden of agitating for recognition, Evans allows the the myth of male genius to work to his benefit at his wife’s detriment. Similarly, if artists feel that we’re never in any position to assert our principles within the shape and structure of our interactions, then we are likewise complicit.

When George Baselitz recently said that women “don’t paint well,” as backed up by  “the market test,” at least his shock-schtick publicized the art world’s sexism overtly. Internalized misogyny and self-preservationist complacency, on the other hand, are less public, more prevalent, and no less abhorrent.

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Values

What kind of art world would you want to participate in?

It can be easy to feel dis-empowered as an artist. You make your work and hope someone notices. You wait for a powerful gallery, curator or critic to make you a blue-chip artist so you can do biennials nonstop and live happily ever after.

But I don’t think it’s like that. Creative Capital‘s professional development workshop taught me that it’s better to focus my energy on my own agency: on the aspects of my art and life and career that I have power over. I learned that it’s possible and necessary for me to envision and shape an art world that I would like to participate in.

When I became a full-time freelancer, I gained a profound respect for professional practices. Two books were tremendously useful for shaping my principles: Marketing Without Advertising and the Graphic Arts Guild’s Pricing and Ethical Guidelines Handbook.

Professional practices are about people

Marketing Without Advertising, by Michael Phillips and Salli Rasberry (NOLO Press, Berkeley) is a handbook for small business owners and the self-employed to develop good reputations and encourage customers to recommend their businesses.

I appreciate its anti-advertising spirit, common sense advice and values-based principles:
transparency (Chapter 6: Openness: The Basis of Trust), and
respect in the workplace (Chapter 5: The Treatment of People Around You).

This is obvious, but it bears repeating:

The way you treat employees, suppliers and friends is an important element in gaining and keeping the trust of your customers…. One of the easiest ways for anyone to learn about your business is by talking to your employees. Because your employees’ lives are so intertwined with yours, and because affect them so directly, your treatment of them will almost automatically be communicated to their friends and family, even if inadvertently.

–Phillips & Rasberry, Marketing Without Advertising

The authors also identify common employee complaints, and how an open management style is better than developing important business policies in secrecy, resulting in the perception of arbitrariness of management and low morale.

Sometimes artists are given advice like, “You should be nice because you never know: the gallery intern you treated poorly a few years back might start their own gallery.” I agree with the principle — treat people decently — but not with the rationale — unabashed self-interest. What a travesty when people in the art world need to be reminded to treat people decently.

Agency through knowledge

The Graphic Arts Guild’s Pricing and Ethical Guidelines Handbook is a must-read for aspiring freelance illustrators or graphic designers. It provides an overview of current market rates, copyright issues, and how to create professional client relationships and fair working conditions. It also includes a useful series of contracts for services and licensing. Its basic principle is this: even though freelancers necessarily compete, it’s better for everyone — clients, freelancers and the industry as a whole — when freelancers operate professionally and have the agency to be treated fairly and create the conditions where our work is respected.

I wish there were a similar book for fine artists. [CARFAC is a great start.]

There are several books on professional practices for artists, but we rarely feel as though we are in positions to hold the institutions that we work with accountable. Few artists have the nerve to press the issue if a gallery refuses to use a contract, much less the leverage to collect debts punctually.

It’s been said that trying to organize an art show is like herding cats. The takeaway is that artists are too independent and flaky to organize. But you could say the same thing about freelancers, whose ranges of professional experiences and industries are equally disparate. The GAG doesn’t assume it will standardize the industry, nevertheless the Handbook provides landmarks for individuals navigating shifting seas and a bit of leverage in client negotiations.

A similar ethical guidelines handbook for artists would help individuals see the bigger picture. We’d feel more invested in the collective good of artists. We wouldn’t let our fear of being seen as temperamental stop us from advocating for being treated with respect and professionalism. We’d see ourselves as partners with agency, rather than lucky souls at the mercy of powerful institutions. We’d see developing these professional relationships not as acts of provocation, but as steps for setting up the conditions for shared successes.

Bargaining

There are, of course, options for collective bargaining. The art workers at the SFMOMA are represented by the Office & Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 3. Unfortunately, some arts institutions are more challenging to unionize than others. A lot of preparators are on-call temporary workers who haven’t got the benefits of salaried employment nor the pull of freelance wages to afford much leverage in when and where to work. (One alternative for itinerant preparators is to join the Freelancers Union, though the nascent organization focuses on insurance provision, and is largely based in New York.)

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